Virtual Reality Can help Improve the Quality of Life of Dementia Patients
A new study shows that virtual reality technology can be beneficial for people who are suffering from dementia by providing them with rich experiences that are outside their physical settings. The experiences not only help reduce aggression but they also help dementia patients to recall past memories and enhance interactions with their caregivers.
The study found that virtual reality experiences could have immeasurable benefits for people suffering from various mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, phobias, PTSD, autism, eating disorders or schizophrenia by immersing them in newer environments that help in alleviating these symptoms while also helping them to cope with their conditions.
Virtual reality experiences are also beneficial for dementia patients who are suffering from confusion, memory loss and increased aggression against caregivers and family members. The research was carried by Dr. Jim Ang and other collaborating researchers at St Andrew’s Healthcare in Northampton and the University of Kent.
The study was published in the Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems and presented at the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems which took place from May 4-9 in Glasgow.
The participants in the study were 8 patients aged between 41 and 88 who were living with dementia, mainly Huntington’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
In the study, every patient was equipped with a VR headset so as to immerse themselves in any of the virtual environments that were included in the study which included a forest, a cathedral, a rocky beach, a sandy beach and a countryside scene. Every patient included in the study went through 16 monitored sessions. The responses and the feedback were subsequently recorded among both the patients and their caregivers.
A key finding from the study was that the experiences assisted the patients in retrieving old memories through the exposure to novel stimuli that would be difficult to experience due to poor and declining health as well as by the inability of patients suffering from dementia to reach beyond their limited secure environment.
Virtual reality experiences in dementia patients activated their ability to simulate and bring back the old memories and this in turn enhanced their moods and became a source of positive mental stimulation.
Virtual reality also has a positive impact on the caregivers, helping them gain a better and more complete understanding of the patient’s lives before their condition deteriorated into the current state. For caregivers, the experience allowed them to have a deeper social interaction with the patients.
Patients in the study showed tremendous improvement a few weeks after the study. Patients also tended to show preferences for certain virtual reality scenes within particular sessions. There were instances of some patients visiting certain scenes repeatedly.
Granted, the study was done on a fairly small scale with just 8 subjects and the researchers have noted the importance of performing a bigger scale study with more participants which will validate the results and conclusions of this particularly study. The researchers also believe that the patient response that they observed in the study lends credence to the conclusion that virtual reality experiences can deliver tremendous benefits to those suffering from dementia.
Nimbler research could, for example, enable us to understand the aspects of virtual environments that can maximize the benefits for patients and enable them to use virtual reality more effectively.
With continuing innovation and enhancements in the virtual reality hardware, it will be possible for engineers to design virtual environments that can benefit individual patients and thereby help realize greater patient satisfaction along with an improved quality of life.
The quality of life benefits for people suffering from dementia is also critical to improving their overall well-being. Estimates from previous research showed that close to 50% of all patients undergoing long-term care and who have cognitive disorders like dementia also suffered from depression. These depressive episodes lead to further cognitive decline, poor motivation as well as social withdrawal and isolation. Data from previous research has showed that the improvements in the quality of life that is catalyzed by exposure to virtual reality reversed this kind of decline, leading to less depression, less anxiety along with lower levels of aggression and agitation.
The role of immersive technologies in medical care will continue to expand as the technology grows in sophistication. One of the more interesting applications has a been the mobile game Sea Hero Quest played with VR headsets that enabled researchers to collect 17,000 years’ worth of research data on Alzheimer’s. The mobile game assesses the navigational skills of players thereby helping researchers in identifying individuals who may be at a higher risk of suffering from Alzheimer’s.
The game has been downloaded more than 4 million times so far, enabling researchers to collect and process rich sets of data that will help in understanding how landmarks can be used in improving the navigational abilities of people suffering from dementia. Medical research has shown that the decline in navigational skills and in spatial relationships will occur 10-15 years before the onset of memory problems.
Overall, the research has demonstrated how the harnessing of virtual reality and therapeutics can be critical to improving the quality of life for the tens of millions of people who are suffering from dementia globally.